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US Privacy Panel: NSA Phone Data Tracking Illegal

by VOA News January 23, 2014

News reports in Washington Thursday say an independent government panel is issuing a report that calls for an end to the National Security Agency's program of collecting telephone records of millions of Americans.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, established by Congress as an independent agency, is said to have concluded NSA's practices violate provisions of the U.S. Constitution that protect Americans' free speech rights and prohibit any 'unreasonable searches and seizures.'

The government had no immediate comment on the accounts of the oversight board's conclusions, which were reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post newspapers.

The board recommendation is likely to trigger a new round of debate over privacy and surveillance issues in the U.S., even after President Barack Obama's announcement last week of new, tightened guidelines for the super-secret NSA's data collection. Media accounts said the oversight board voted 3-2 on the main conclusions of its lengthy report.

Obama said he consulted with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, along with a separate review group he established, before deciding on his high-profile public statement about NSA practices. While saying he wanted to find a way to end the government's collection of bulk data files measuring telephone calls by millions of Americans, the president added that he believes the program's basic capabilities should be preserved.

The fact that NSA has been gathering enormous quantities of telephone records - supposedly not the contents of conversations, but the access numbers involved and the duration and timing of calls - was revealed last year after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden copied millions of secret documents and began releasing them to news media.

​​Snowden, the target of U.S. prosecutors, is now living in exile in Russia.

Underpinning the U.S. intelligency community's defense of its data-collection tactics is an intepretation of the Patriot Act, legislation Congress passed in the aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks on the United States, that grants investigators sweeping powers in cases involving national security matters. According to version of the oversight board's report leaked in advance, the data-collection program NSA began 'lacks a viable legal foundation ... raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties as a policy matter, and has shown only limited value.'

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